Lincoln had the misfortune to preside over the single worst defeat of American forces during the Revolutionary War, the loss of Charleston.
Soldier. Lincoln was born in Hingham, Massachusetts, on January 24, 1733, the sixth child of Colonel Benjamin Lincoln and Elizabeth Thaxter. Lincoln rose to prominence in the Seven Years’ War, where he gained extensive experience in military planning and organization. A strong supporter of revolutionary activities in Massachusetts, that colony appointed him a major general of militia in February 1776. He served in the campaign around New York in the summer and fall of 1776 and earned Washington’s admiration and respect. Acting on Washington’s recommendation, the Continental Congress appointed him a major general in the Continental army on February 14, 1777. Later that year he helped Horatio Gates defeat General John Burgoyne’s British army in the Saratoga campaign.
Impressed with his abilities, the Continental Congress chose Lincoln to replace Major General Robert Howe as commander of the Southern Department in September 1778. Lincoln arrived in Charleston to take command in December. The British captured Savannah in late December 1778 and in the ensuing months reestablished some control over Georgia. Lincoln’s desire to drive the British from Georgia exposed South Carolina to attack and brought the wrath of South Carolinians upon him. In late April 1779 he marched the bulk of his army up the Savannah River and crossed to Augusta, intending to force the British from the Georgia backcountry. General Augustine Prevost, meanwhile, crossed the Savannah and marched his army to Charleston. Lincoln returned to the state, but not before Prevost’s troops threatened Charleston and ravaged farms and plantations throughout the lowcountry. Shortly after Prevost’s troops withdrew toward Georgia, Lincoln complained to General William Moultrie, “it appears . . . that I have lost the confidence of the people.” Lincoln wished to resign from command of the Southern Department, but Moultrie and Governor John Rutledge convinced him to remain. He led American forces in the disastrous Franco-American effort against Savannah in October 1779.
Lincoln had the misfortune to preside over the single worst defeat of American forces during the Revolutionary War, the loss of Charleston. Probably influenced by his experience in the spring campaign of 1779, Lincoln elected to hold Charleston against a strong army and fleet under General Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot. Although several officers recommended evacuation, Lincoln decided to keep his army within his works. The Americans staved off the British for six weeks, but Clinton’s force eventually applied overwhelming pressure and the city capitulated on May 12, 1780. Governor Rutledge criticized Lincoln for giving up the town, but other South Carolinians praised his conduct. The historian David Ramsay thought that “great praise” was due Lincoln for “baffling, for three months, the greatly superior force of Sir Henry Clinton and Admiral Arbuthnot.” Exchanged in November 1780, Lincoln served as second in command to Washington during the Yorktown campaign, accepting the sword of Cornwallis’s second in command at the surrender of Yorktown. He later served as head of the newly created War Department and in various positions in Massachusetts government after the war. Lincoln died in Hingham, Massachusetts, on May 9, 1810.
Mattern, David B. Benjamin Lincoln and the American Revolution. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995.
Moultrie, William. Memoirs of the American Revolution. 1802. Reprint, New York: New York Times, 1968.
Ramsay, David. History of the Revolution in South Carolina, from a British Province to an Independent State. 2 vols. Trenton, N.J.: Isaac Collins, 1785.